How the 'Game of Thrones' Finale Salvaged a Fitting End to the Show
Both exhilarating and maddening, the series finale of Game of Thrones felt like -- surprise -- a Game of Thrones episode. In the first half, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who wrote and directed the closing 79 minutes of the final season, delivered a fiery blast of dread-soaked, ash-covered apocalyptic fantasy storytelling, packed with impressive special effects and brutal character deaths. The less unrelentingly bleak and spectacle-driven second half, which crowned a new king and provided a handful of tearful goodbyes, was a talky political drama, complete with detours into record keeping, mysterious sailing adventures, and groan-worthy jokes about brothels. To the end, the series remained true to itself.
Many characters in Game of Thrones have a tendency to over-idealize the past -- think of the sentimental look in Daenerys's eyes as she approached the Iron Throne, reminiscing about imagining as a young girl a chair made of "a thousand swords" -- but the show has consistently cut that golden-hued nostalgia with muddy moments of cynicism. The finale, an occasionally awkward but entertaining work of fire and ice, didn't deviate too aggressively from the larger sensibility forged over the course of eight seasons. It didn't "pay off" every theory or "answer" every question, but is that a task that a colossal, ever-expanding prestige TV show could realistically accomplish? What did you really expect?
Over the last few weeks, you've likely read a version of the argument that the series "fell off" somewhere after the fourth season as Benioff and Weiss began to deviate and expand from the source material of George R.R. Martin's book series. Though the exact point of when this dip in quality apparently occurred often varies, it feels to me like the larger sense of exhaustion saw a major uptick around the time of "Beyond the Wall" in Season 7, an unevenly paced heist adventure based around an ill-advised plan, and only intensified through controversial Season 8 episodes like "The Long Night" and "The Bells," which culminated with Daenerys's dragon-powered attack on King's Landing. As you may already know, a futile petition to "remake" Season 8 with "competent writers" currently has over a million signatures.
With the series now officially over, it's not exactly fun to argue about the specifics of past episodes. If you didn't like them or found them lacking in nuance, that's fair enough. However, it's perhaps worth noting that the finale contained a handful of big-picture plot twists and smaller character beats that simply worked as slick TV drama, hitting that Tolkien-esque sense of melancholy the creators were clearly aiming for. Even in its best seasons, Game of Thrones was always messy, and the finale was no exception. Let's dig into the rubble a bit and see what's there.
Tyrion Lannister again became a major character
For the last few seasons of the series, Tyrion Lannister, once considered the show's beating heart and its witty conscience, was pushed to the margins. As the military ambitions of Daenerys and Jon Snow took center stage, along with the larger existential threat of the White Walkers, there was simply less time for his brand of behind-the-scenes tinkering and throne room whispering. After making a series of high-profile strategic blunders, earning the distrust of his Queen and the disapproval of his friend Varys, Tyrion was more or less sidelined for the last two seasons.
From the pre-credits recap, which began with his voice, to the episode's opening image, which featured the imp solemnly marching through a storm of falling ash, "The Iron Throne" was a showcase for Tyrion Lannister. He defiantly tossed his "Hand of the Queen" pin in front of his triumphant leader; he talked Jon Snow into murdering his former lover and aunt; he got locked up and then turned what looked like his trial into a king-making session. No longer sitting off to the side or hiding in the crypts during a big battle, he was all over this episode, coordinating all the action and calling all the plays.
For some, it likely felt like too little too late. After so many major fuck-ups, why exactly was the council assembled at King's Landing so excited to listen to his advice? Was serving as Bran's newly appointed Hand a fitting punishment for failing to prevent a massacre and betraying his Queen? Would he really have been left out of the book Sam presented during the final staff meeting? There are plenty elements of Tyrion's story to nit-pick, but it was fun to see Benioff and Weiss return focus to one of the show's most beloved characters. At the very least, the episode will probably earn Peter Dinklage another Emmy to put on his shelf.
The Iron Throne was destroyed
Who will win the game? If you thought that Game of Thrones was going to declare an obvious victor, you were watching a different show. In the finale's most visually striking sequence, Jon Snow entered the decimated throne room, kissed his Queen, and plunged a knife through her heart. Then, Dany's trusty dragon Drogon appeared and mourned his mother by doing a perfectly normal thing for a winged beast: He destroyed the show's most potent and menacing symbol of dynastic rule. The seat of power all these battles were fought over was reduced to a pile of bubbling lava.
The big moment with Drogon was cool-looking and likely gave you that queasy feeling in your stomach that Game of Thrones specializes in. But the conversation that occurred before the final melting was similarly compelling and addressed some of the larger concerns about Dany's behavior from the previous episode. The exchange revealed that she hadn't necessarily "snapped" in a way that made her lose her hold on reality or abandon her ideals; she was simply following her instincts as a leader, executing a plan based on her conception of herself as a liberator. "It's not easy to see something that has never been seen before," she told John. "I know what is good."
That unwavering belief in herself was her undoing. Throughout its run, Game of Thrones displayed a skepticism about the wisdom of kings and queens, preferring to view them as unruly puppets easily manipulated by others behind the curtain. Enormous and ghastly, the Iron Throne was always a semi-ridiculous piece of stagecraft, a prop in the fraught theater of the kingdom. Drogon simply decided to strike the set. It was the equivalent of taking your ball and going home.
The wheel was broken -- or at least heavily damaged
At the moment, you can find a number of lengthy threads floating around Twitter about how the political machinations of the finale were ahistorical or simplistic. The complexity of the world and the size of the map, which the show has been building for years now, makes a relatively "neat" ending nearly impossible. The challenge of wrapping up a story like this is more or less confirmed by George R.R. Martin's long-documented difficulties with finishing the books. If it were as easy as many of the show's harshest critics seem to assume it is, Martin would've done it already.
But the decision to end the story with Bran as an all-knowing, warging King felt both surprising and inevitable. (Personally, I'd say that's a common feature of a well-executed twist.) While we won't know what Martin's ending will look like until the final books are published, it does sound like Benioff and Weiss stuck to his plan. "I don't think Dan and Dave's ending is going to be that different from my ending," Martin told 60 Minutes in an interview earlier this year.
By eliminating dynastic rule and instead shifting to a system where a King is appointed by a council of noble leaders, the show gestured toward the concept of political progress without completely overthrowing the social and economic structure of society. There was no revolution. Sam's hope for democracy was laughed away. Inevitably, the poorest citizens of Westeros will face incredible challenges and unjust cruelty under King Bran. It's an incrementalist take, which, again, matches the show's temperament.
For the Starks, it was all about the journey
The most common move for a long-running genre television series, particularly one as popular as Game of Thrones, is to hit a final note of "the adventure continues." The finality or closure associated with a more contained story isn't really possible on this scale -- or it can be incredibly alienating if not done perfectly -- so it makes sense to imply that the larger fight between good and evil will continue. There won't be any more episodes, but the people you care about are still "out there" in a sense. Sometimes it's cheesy; sometimes it leaves you a blubbering mess.
That "it's the journey, not the destination" can be a tough pill to swallow for some viewers, but it was effectively hit in the final montage, which expanded the show's soaring theme music as we watched banished-but-happy-looking Jon Snow travel beyond the wall with the free folk, powerful-and-still-independent Sansa donning the crown as the Queen of the North, and no-longer-vengeance-seeking Arya boarding a ship to explore uncharted territory out West. The children of Ned and Catelyn Stark, including the new King Bran the Broken, were introduced way back in the pilot, and their respective narratives formed the spine of the series.
In the coming months, there will inevitably be discussions about where "The Iron Throne" sits among other recent hotly debated finales for popular shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Lost. On a plot and thematic level, the ending of Game of Thrones reminded me most of the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a final chapter that showed the main characters had reached new levels of maturity but also implied that the struggle is endless and cyclical. It's a sentiment with clear appeal to writers of serialized television, who are often moving on to the next story themselves. Does that mean it will stand the test of time? As Tyrion said near the end of the episode, "Ask me again in 10 years."